“This is Us” and the Dangers of Social Isolation

The first season of This is Us returns today, and like millions of other Americans, I will be tuning in. The Washington Post calls the show “the surprise breakout hit” of the fall season. “The pilot scored 10 million same-day viewers; with DVR viewing factored in, that jumped to 14.6 million. Adweek reports that the premiere had the most social media activity out of any new fall show, including cable.”

There are plenty of theories about why the show has been so popular. Even Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has weighed in, arguing,

“We see a glimpse of the way the decisions made in private of a young couple who never planned to be parents reverberate through the years in the lives of their offspring. This rings true because we all tend to see our lives as narrative and, like the characters in this series, the narrative is often murkier than we would like.”

But I think the reason for the show’s popularity is simpler. In a world where social isolation is becoming more common, This is Us shows a thick, extended family with multiple generations dependent on each other. The family may be totally dysfunctional, but just like Parenthood, Modern Family, and Brothers & Sisters, one has the sense that it gives each character a foundation and a safety net.

Last week, a piece in the New York Times noted that “since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. About one-third of Americans older than sixty-five now live alone, and half of those over eighty-five do.” This is having adverse effects on our health.

A piece in the New York Post profiled a woman who charges men hundreds of dollars for cuddling with her. “I saw a huge increase in clientele right after Thanksgiving,” Lisa VanArsdale said, noting that she has received fifteen snuggle requests in the past two weeks alone. “One reason is that Christmas is a time of year to spend with family, and if you don’t have that, it can be very lonely,” she said.

But shows about extended families are not just for people who are living alone and fantasizing about having a big Christmas dinner. They are for people who feel that they have only their small nuclear family to rely on, and no help caring for kids or aging parents. As American birthrates have shrunk in the past century, we have fewer adult siblings on whom we and our children can depend; if we do have siblings, they often live hundreds or thousands of miles away. Watching shows like Parenthood or Modern Family, it is easy to see the difference. Grandparents can help when parents are having difficulties with children. Aunts and uncles are available for babysitting. Brothers and sisters can talk about changes in the health of parents and reminisce about the way life used to be. Cousins have ready-made playmates.

So far, This Is Us is a little heavier on the problems family creates than the solutions it provides. But the show’s audience will likely stay tuned; after all, it’s not often that a television drama finds the potential for love amidst the chaos of family life.

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